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Basic Skills: Without Them, You’re Broke(r)

by Karl Denninger, Market Ticker:

This last week marks four separate instances of something that has broken here at the house which I could have “called someone” and would have likely cost me a ton of money during the last few months — but in each case the cost of the repair was either nothing or just a few dollars.

The first was my oven, right around the holidays. It stopped heating, which is a real bitch when you’re in the middle of making food. Usually that’s the heating element, which is typically $25 or so to buy (and can be changed by anyone who can successfully use a screwdriver in under 30 minutes.) The element in this case was in fact bad, but in addition there was a fuse in the back of the oven which had also “cooked.”

It didn’t fail from overcurrent (a short) it failed from a bad connection which heated it up enough for it to pretty-much catch the fuse holder on fire. Cost of the repair? $5 for a new fuse holder and $25 for a lower element. The “snowflake” solution would have been to buy a new $1,000 range/oven combination.

Next up was my pool pump. It had a small leak in the center section between the motor and pump body. If you call the pool guys they’ll come out and replace the pump. If you don’t fix the leak promptly, incidentally, you will be buying a new motor because the water will get in there and destroy it. Well, a few years ago I put a VFD drive motor in, which (incidentally) has cut my power consumption for the pool by some 80% — but that damn motor is expensive! A complete pump assembly, with motor? $1,000 — plus the pool guy’s labor to put it in, which is a couple hour job with wiring and pipe.

The actual problem is a $20 shaft seal. A full kit of seals, including the O-rings you disturb to get to the shaft seal, costs about $30. Time to repair? An hour, since I didn’t have to unwire anything and the last time I had the plumbing apart I intelligently put unions in so I could disconnect the pump and filter with reasonable ease. The “snowflake” solution would have easily topped $1,000 with labor – probably $1,200 or so.

Next up was about a week ago. The dishwasher stopped running mid-cycle with a “door open” fault shown on the display — but the door was latched. Most of the time this is bad news; the control board is usually dead, and they’re not cheap. Well, the unit is 10+ years old, so I expected the worst. Opening up the control board area I found a bad connection that (again) overheated and had cooked one of the wires and the trace on the board it plugged into. But it was salvageable: A short length of tinned (marine-grade) stranded wire, my soldering iron, some shrink wrap and hot glue to tack it all back in place and then disassembly of all the other connectors to tighten them up so I don’t get a repeat because the next incident will definitely fry the controller board beyond repair and the dishwasher is back in business. Cost? $0, plus about an hour of my time. Snowflake solution? New dishwasher: $500+.

And then there was the most-recent. I have my home automated and when I go to bed I push a button and it drops the temperature in the house by a few degrees, since I like a cool house to sleep. Well, a few hours later I wake up and the AC is running. Uh….. that’s not good, considering that I don’t feel particularly cold air coming out of the vents and in fact I’m warmer than I should be — and no, I’m not drunk. I wait a few minutes and it’s still running. Step outside and find the outside unit has the fan running but no compressor. Crap. Shut it off at the disconnect, go to bed, deal with it in the morning.

Next morning I opened it up, expecting very bad ($$$$$$$$) news. See, if the fan is running on the outside unit then power is good and so is the ($10) contactor — which means you’re odds-on to have an open in the compressor motor itself (inside the sealed part) which totals the outside unit.

Nope.

One of the wires from the contactor to the run condenser had apparently succumbed to corrosion internally (untinned wire, thanks for nothing you jackasses!) and, once it got compromised it burned up. In the process of trying to light itself on fire that wire burned the insulation on a few other wires, but fortunately the manufacturer was kind enough to leave sufficient length to cut off the damaged part and reterminate them. I had to make up one jumper, but I happen to have some 14 fully tinned marine-grade wire to do that with, plus crimp-on disconnects and the proper crimping tool. Total cost of the repair? $0. The “snowflake” solution could have been anywhere from an honest repairman charging a couple hundred bucks for the service call and a crazy markup on the replaced wiring to something really awful, $3-4,000, if you got a dishonest guy who claims the condenser is bad — a ruse that utterly nobody who failed to check it out themselves would detect.

So let me see if I can count this up: That’s under $100 worth of actual repairs and somewhere between $2,000 and $5,000 in avoided expense because I’m not a “snowflake.”

Let’s put this in perspective for you:

For the average family that’s roughly 10% of their annual disposable income.

These sorts of “emergencies” aren’t all that uncommon. In fact they’re routine. Most households have at least one “good one” a year, whether it be the range, the microwave, a water heater, car, washing machine or similar. Another “good one” for you to get screwed by is the rotary spring on your garage door; they break, and cost about $30-40. I’ve seen $500 repair bills to change one which is a pure rape job given that I can replace one in under an hour, but the garage door places get it from people who are afraid of doing it themselves because when the spring breaks your car is trapped inside the garage! The newer 4-stroke weed whackers require a valve adjustment roughly annually — a 15 minute task if you know how to do it and a $100 bill from the local small-engine guy if you don’t. A material percentage of the failures in appliances and similar are due to manufacturer decisions to save 15 cents when the item is made but most of the time they’re fixable for very little money if you know how. If not they can be very reliable budget-wreckers.

All of this expense comes because we got rid of shop class, the average 18 year old can’t change his own oil and has no idea how to use a voltmeter or a soldering iron. Instead of using one’s head and looking into things we now just “call someone” and play around on Facebook and Snap.

Look, if you like buying a new range every 10 years or so (when you can easily get 20+ out of one), a new dishwasher five years earlier than you should need to or worse, a new AC unit at half of the lifetime it should be expected to last then go right ahead and be stupid.

They’ll be happy to take your money.

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